By next summer, the world's first commercial plant that captures carbon dioxide directly from air will begin operation in Switzerland.
A handful of other startups are working on similar technology, but Climeworks AG may be first to start turning pollution into cash. The plant pulls air inside, where it gets absorbed in a reusable filter. When it's heated up, the filter releases pure CO2 gas that can be sold to industry. The plant will capture 900 tons a year, which is still small—roughly the equivalent emissions of 200 cars.
Their first customer will be a nearby greenhouse, which will use the CO2 to make plants like lettuce grow faster. Soon, the company plans to start selling to beverage companies that can inject it into drinks for carbonation. Neither customer is the ultimate target market, though, because both uses eventually release carbon again.
"If CO2 captured from air goes in your Coca-Cola, once you open the bottle, the CO2 goes back in the atmosphere," says Dominique Kronenberg, COO at Climeworks. But these early customers will help the startup test their technology at scale. "In the short term, our focus is developing the technology, scaling it up, and bringing the costs down."
Carbon capture from air is harder than, say, catching pollution directly as it leaves a coal power plant. But more than half of all carbon emissions come from moving sources like cars and airplanes. So Climeworks is trying to solve each challenge, like the fact that their technology takes quite a bit of energy to run. By connecting their new plant with a waste facility, they can run it on waste heat and electricity.
Eventually, the company plans to use their product (along with renewable energy and water) to make a synthetic, carbon-neutral fuel. They also think there will soon be more demand for alternatives. "We have a fundamental belief that things can't go on the way they've been going on—more and more oil pumped out of the ground," Kronenberg says. "There will be an end sooner or later." When Climeworks starts making fuel, they'll also start to have an impact on global carbon levels.
In theory, the CO2 captured in the new plant could also be stored, though the company doesn't have plans to do that. "Today, there's no business case for just capturing and storing CO2," he says. "There's carbon taxes, but they're 10 or even 50 times lower than the actual market price for utilization." Storage is also risky—no one knows exactly how long or how safely CO2 can be stored underground.
The new plant, which will begin construction now and finish in mid-2016, can help the company prove whether their business model works. If it does, the plants could eventually start showing up anywhere there's a source of cheap, renewable energy. "You can put it wherever you like," Kronenberg says. "The concentration of CO2 is pretty much the same all over the planet."